"Queen of Blues" Koko Taylor Dies at 80

Bars and ClubsDining and DrinkingMemphisFamilyDeathJobs and WorkplaceKoko Taylor

CHICAGO -- Koko Taylor, a sharecropper's daughter whoseregal bearing and powerful voice earned her the sobriquet "Queenof the Blues," has died after complications from surgery. She was80.

Taylor died Wednesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital abouttwo weeks after having surgery for a gastrointestinal bleed, saidMarc Lipkin, director of publicity for her record label, AlligatorRecords, which made the announcement.

"The passion that she brought and the fire and the growl in hervoice when she sang was the truth," blues singer and musicianRonnie Baker Brooks said Wednesday. "The music will live on, butit's much better because of Koko. It's a huge loss."

Taylor's career stretched more than five decades. While she didnot have widespread mainstream success, she was revered and belovedby blues aficionados, and earned worldwide acclaim for her work,which including the best-selling song "Wang Dang Doodle" andtunes such as "What Kind of Man is This" and "I Got What ItTakes."

Taylor appeared on national television numerous times, and wasthe subject of a PBS documentary and had a small part in director

David Lynch's "Wild at Heart."

"What a loss to the blues world," said Chicago blues legend

Buddy Guy. "She was one of the last of the greats of Chicago andreally did what she could to keep the blues alive here, like I'mtrying to do now."

In the course of her career, Taylor was nominated seven timesfor Grammy awards and won in 1984.

Taylor last performed on May 7 in Memphis, Tenn., at the BluesMusic Awards.

"She was still the best female blues singer in the world amonth ago," said Jay Sieleman, executive director of The BluesFoundation based in Memphis. "In 1950s Chicago she was the womansinging the blues. At 80 years old she was still the queen of theblues."

Born Cora Walton just outside Memphis, Taylor said her dream tobecome a blues singer was nurtured in the cotton fields outside herfamily's sharecropper shack.

"I used to listen to the radio, and when I was about 18 yearsold, B.B. King was a disc jockey and he had a radio program, 15minutes a day, over in West Memphis, Arkansas and he would play theblues," she said in a 1990 interview. "I would hear differentrecords and things by Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie,Sonnyboy Williams and all these people, you know, which I justloved."

Although her father encouraged her to sing only gospel music,Cora and her siblings would sneak out back with their homemadeinstruments and play the blues. With one brother accompanying on aguitar made out of bailing wire and nails and one brother on a fifemade out of a corncob, she began on the path to blues woman.

Orphaned at 11, Koko - a nickname she earned because of an earlylove of chocolate - at age 18 moved to Chicago with hersoon-to-be-husband, the late Robert "Pops" Taylor, in search forwork.

"I was so glad to get out of the cotton patch and stop pickin'cotton, I wouldn't of cared who come by and said, 'I'll take you toChicago,"' Taylor recalled in a 2004 interview with The AssociatedPress.

When she first entered the city, she thought, "Good God, thismust be heaven," Taylor said.

Setting up house on the South Side, Koko found work as acleaning woman for a wealthy family living in the city's northernsuburbs. At night and on weekends, she and her husband, who wouldlater become her manager, frequented Chicago's clubs, where manythe artists heard on the radio performed.

"I started going to these local clubs, me and my husband, andeverybody got to know us," Taylor said. "And then the guys wouldstart letting me sit in, you know, come up on the bandstand and doa tune."

The break for Tennessee-born Taylor came in 1962, whenarranger/composer Willie Dixon, impressed by her voice, got her aChess recording contract and produced several singles (and twoalbums) for her, including the million-selling 1965 hit, "WangDang Doodle," which she called silly, but which launched herrecording career.

From Chicago blues clubs, Taylor took her raucous, gritty,good-time blues on the road to blues and jazz festivals around thenation, and into Europe. After the Chess label folded, she signedwith Alligator Records.

In most years, she performed at least 100 concerts a year.

"Blues is my life," Taylor once said. "It's a true feelingthat comes from the heart, not something that just comes out of mymouth. Blues is what I love, and blues is what I always do."

In addition to performing, she operated a Chicago nightclub,which closed in November 2001 because her daughter, club managerJoyce Threatt, developed severe asthma and could no longer manage asmoky nightclub.

Survivors include her daughter; husband Hays Harris;grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements will beannounced, the label said.

Taylor was a mentor and inspiration to the next generation offemale blues singers, said 30-year-old blues singer ShemekiaCopeland, who first met Taylor when she was 15 at a club in NewYork.

"When I saw her, I couldn't speak," said Copeland, thedaughter of late blues artist Johnny Copeland. "You can't ask awoman who sings blues right now who influenced them and not say,'Koko Taylor.' If she didn't pave the way for us we couldn't dothis."

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